Percy Stith, Hat Maker & Shop Owner
You have probably seen Percy Stith around town before and wondered his story. He's tall, stylish, and is always wearing a notable hat. When we made plans to interview him, we had no idea he was in the midst of launching a new business and opening a storefront in town. Luckily for us, he gave us a tour of the space and shared his vision for the future of hat making and wearing in Santa Fe and beyond.
SFF: How did you get into hat making?
PS: My first wife made hats. At the time I was in New York working in the fashion industry, merchandising for Sean John. I had just gotten out of college and it was 2004. She was working with an old guy who had a hat shop in Manhattan and I would come by every day after work and just watch them. I told her I wanted to make one, so she showed me how. I made a couple for myself and one for a friend.
SFF: Typically I think of hats as being inaccessible due to cost.
PS: That's what made me start making hats again. When I lost one of my favorite hats, an old Stetson, I went to a hat store in town and it cost like $1,000 bucks to replace it. So I just decided to get a steamer, buy the felt, and do it myself.
SFF: Is that when you decided to start a hat business?
PS: After I replaced the hat that I lost, I made a couple more for myself and one for a friend. Then my buddy Bobby Beals was opening a pop-up shop for the holidays at his gallery [Beals & Co.] on Canyon Road. He asked me to make some hats for the shop, but I was like "maybe next year." He jokingly said he would find another hat maker, to you know, kind of challenge me, and asked me to just make 6 or 7. I had a month and a half so I ended up making 12 for the opening, and I finished another 7 the next week. They all sold.
PS: Yeah, so I realized I should probably make more hats. Plus, if I had my own shop I wouldn't have to split the profits. Ultimately though my goal is not just to have my own line, but to set up hundreds of hat shops. I feel like hats are going to be back in style.
SFF: It seems like people don't really know where to get them.
PS: And the prices are really high. This is my theory: the initial change in travel is what led to people not wearing hats. Before the automobile, in every picture you see, everyone has a hat on. If you didn't have your hat on, there was something wrong. You had run out of the house because there was some sense of emergency! Other than that, 90% of men and women wore hats in the 20's, 30's and 40's. With the birth of the automobile, and once cars became affordable and people could finance them, the short walk was eliminated. My theory is that with self driving cars and the elimination of car ownership, people are going to start wearing hats again. But also with the intensity of the sun, it helps to block the sun rays so there is a practical sense of wearing hats as well.
SFF: What does the process of making a hat actually look like?
PS: The felt comes as a cone, and the first step in the process is to select a block in the shape you want, then stretch the felt over it. I shape all my hats by hand, flat iron the brim, and then cut the brim. Then I bring the hats to my friend who sews sweat bands in. For each hat, I make custom hat bands with fabrics and leather that I collect from thrift stores and find on my travels.
SFF: Where do you get the wood blocks that you use to shape your hats?
PS: I have some old ones, but I'm going to MAKE Santa Fe soon and have them 3D print custom hat blocks.
SFF: They look like something you'd find at a flea market and think "what the hell is this?"
PS: If you ever see one at a flea market, let me know! Just buy it and I'll buy them from you for sure. They're harder and harder to come by these days.
SFF: Do you wear a hat every day?
PS: Every day, especially now [with the shop opening]. People will come up and say "Hey, nice hat" and sometimes I tell them "well, I make hats, so it's kind of unfair."
SFF: I really like that straw hat on the wall.
PS: That's my personal hat. I'm just starting to work with straw. I've actually had this straw hat for years, and I just recently changed the shape of it a little bit and stiffened the brim. The same stuff I use to stiffen the wool and beaver actually works to stiffen the straw as well. It's a formula I make up, basically a liquid glue.
SFF: So what where you doing in Santa Fe before you decided to start this business?
PS: A lot of things, like most people in Santa Fe. I sell real estate here as a broker with Logic, a team of women. I'm also a river guide for Santa Fe Rafting, but it's going to be a short season because we're short on water.
SFF: How long have you been in Santa Fe?
PS: About 5 years. I grew up in Boston because my parents were in school at Harvard when I was born. At 13 I moved to Vermont. I was good at ski racing so I went to ski academy.
SFF: Ski academy? Like a high school but for skiing?
PS: Yeah, it was like the 100 best skiers in the world. They trained us every day. We skied 300 days in the year.
SFF: Were you Olympics-bound?
PS: I competed in the Junior Olympics. I went pro after high school and joined the development team, but I hurt myself. After that I went to Bates College in Maine, then took a year off to travel in East Africa. When I came back I decided to transfer to Morehouse instead of going back to Maine. I was a Benjamin E. Mays Scholar at Bates, so I already had permission to go Morehouse for a semester, but I told them I just wanted to stay at Morehouse. I graduated from Morehouse with a degree in Economics.
SFF: Did you move to New York right after you graduated?
PS: Yes, I first worked for Sean John and then I started my own company called Bellozi. I started by making men's dress shirts, then expanded into jeans and women's shirts.
SFF: So what's your vision for the shop?
PS: I'd like to have 10 workspaces where anyone can come make a hat in just two days. And if there's a part of the process they don't want to do themselves, they don't have to. If they just want to design it, I can make it. Or, if you're a young person in Santa Fe and want a way to make money, you can come here and help fulfill orders. So this little hat store could become a mini factory. Let's say you design a great hat and put it on your Instagram - we could fulfill orders if people wanted to order your hat. We could make a video of you making your hat for marketing, and then we'll help you brand it and put your own label in it. That's why the shop name has been hard for me to come up with. I want to name the brand as a factory, basically. A place you can go and make a hat.
SFF: It's a cool concept. Have you seen this business model work before?
PS: I guess a model like it would be Build-A-Bear or American Girl Doll, but you don't even build the doll there, you just pick the clothing. But basically you would come in and there would be a huge rack of leather to make bands, and workshops to teach people skills. Once you've made your hat, you could come in every few months and make a new custom band or change the shape. The other thing about making hats this way is that the price point will come down because you're putting in the labor yourself. Hopefully it would get back to the point where people start wearing lots of hats again and have hats for different outfits.
SFF: So long term you want this to be a come one, come all workshop.
PS: Yeah, definitely. I have to start somewhere, so right now it's just my shop. I'm going to continue making hats and selling them, and I also restore old hats. Most of my restoration clients are from Los Angeles. They send me their hats, I restore and repair them, and send them back.
SFF: How much will it cost to make a hat?
PS: It depends on the materials and quality of hat you want to make. Wool is cheaper than beaver and cashmere. The average price for one of my hats is probably around $200, but I have some that are around $50. The ones that take me longer I'll charge a couple hundred bucks for because of my time.
SFF: What makes beaver superior to wool?
PS: I can get wool hat bodies from South America and Europe, whereas I buy the American beaver ones from Winchester. Beaver hats are thinner, softer, and more water resistant. But we live in a place that doesn't rain that much anyway, so I have no problem working with wool. But if you do live here and your hat gets wet, you can bring it to me and I can re-stiffen it.
SFF: How do you make the hat bands?
PS: I have this box of stuff that I make them out of. When I go to thrift stores or when I travel, I pick things up that I can use. Every now and then I will start from scratch and use leather stripping. Right now I'm working on some with silver dollars.
SFF: What's your favorite thing about Santa Fe?
PS: The mountains. I still ski a lot and compete sometimes on the Freeride World Tour. But last season I hurt myself and this year there wasn't much snow so I didn't ski much this year.
SFF: Where can people find you in town?
PS: Ten Thousand Waves - I go at least once a week. Izanami is also dope. That new bar at the El Rey [La Reina] is pretty dope. There are also amazing thrift stores here. A lot of times I grab lunch at The Compound on Canyon Road. There's also a bar there and sometimes I'll get dinner at the bar. And Dolina, I go there a lot for brunch.
SFF: Any fun plans for spring?
PS: I'm gonna pick up a big pontoon boat in southern New Mexico in a couple weeks and then bring it up to Abiquiu. We'll have some parties on the water. Abiquiu lake is huge and there are so many inlets.
SFF: Thanks for having us!
Percy's shop, yet to be named, will be opening up in the next few weeks. It's located at 638 Old Santa Fe Trail, and you can follow him online at @stithcollection.